50 years ago Mobutu Sese Seko revolted in the Congo (part 1)

50 years ago Mobutu Sese Seko revolted in the Congo (part 1)

A never-ending Kleptocracy?

by Dr Peter Küpfer

November of this year marks the 50th anniversary of the coup bringing the Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko to power. On 24 November 1965 the at that time still young Commander of the Congolese armed forces occupied all the strategically important areas of the State and had the radio proclaim that the Constitution was suspended, the Parliament dissolved and that all the power was concentrated in his hands. With the blessing of the West, the Congo suffered for over 32 dark years in which Mobutu and his corrupt cronies bled the State and the population of the Congolese giant empire.

In November 1965 Mobutu’s violent assumption of power put an end to the so-called “Congo turmoil” lasting for 5 years. These events, the long-standing turmoil in the Congo and finally the coup of Mobutu, were seen by many Western commentators as a proof that the former African colonies were not viable. They forget that the Congo turmoil, its dictators and the rundown of its resources and therefore its people are not done by the Congolese themselves. These are rather the most obvious ravages in a history in which the greed of the West plays a key role, just like the shameful slave trade hundreds of years ago. In this economical and geopolitical explosive part of the world, the Mobutu dictatorship is just an episode, but a grim one.

Private property of the King

The Democratic Republic of the Congo, as the giant country on the river Congo is officially named again, has such a large territory that France would comfortably fit in seven times. However, the population living there is not much bigger than that of Germany. Today’s boundaries of the huge country were established by former colonial powers, at least in its broad outlines, at the Berlin Conference of 1885/86; not a single African participated in this conference. The world powers did not really know what to do with the – at that time still uncharted – huge forest areas at the Big River in the centre of sub-Saharan Africa and its endless savannahs in the South. So they gave their approval to the idea, to assign the whole area with the many white spots on the map as private property to Belgian King Leopold II. First, he rubbed his eyes, and then his hands, when besides trading in ivory and tropical timber the caoutchouc extracted there peaked in a steeper and steeper price rise on the world market. With the invention of vulcanization by Dunlop in 1890 and later the development of the automobile, then the aircraft, the need for raw rubber for the tire production boomed tremendously. In contrast to Latin America, Congolese rubber was not taken from the Hevea tree, but from rubber vines that quickly died when tapped in excess. That forced people who were “used” to extract the crude rubber, to go for longer and longer marches through the jungle and to additional hardship. Draconian penalties were the order of the day, whipping and hacking of hands because of too little productive work or escape attempts. In 1905 the Congolese rubber trade lost importance, because most of the rubber vines were destroyed (Strizek, p. 39).

Sought-after commodities

In 1908, Congo became a colony of the Belgian State and remained a colony named “Belgian Congo” until the year 1960. Although forced labour introduced in the “Free State of Congo” under Leopold was abolished, nothing changed with regards to the exploitation of the natural resources of the Congo. On the contrary, exploitation was pursued even more systematically. Additional huge resources of raw materials were discovered, including gold and diamonds. In southern Congo, in the province of Katanga (former Shaba), the colonists found a metal causing similar furore as the rubber: there were and still are huge copper deposits. You may imagine what this meant during the early times of electrification of the Western world at the beginning of the 20th century. All electric cable is actually made out of copper. The targeted exploitation of other sought after resources followed right away, especially silver and diamonds in Kasai. The colonists realized soon that they were sitting in their vast colony on riches, for which they were envied by the world. Also Uranium was found in Congo, a metal with deposits only in a few places worldwide. The Americans developed their first atomic bombs with Uranium of Congolese origin. Also the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were built of and ignited with Congolese Uranium, with the consequences everybody knows. Nowadays, criminal armed gangs, most of them in the pay of the creepy neighbour of Congo, Rwanda, plunder among other things especially Coltan deposits in Eastern Congo and transport it to Kigali. Coltan is indispensable for the functioning of electronic controls anywhere in this world and for every mobile phone. Rwanda, in the past a poverty stricken country exporting only coffee and tea, has become a major exporter of Coltan in the meantime. Even today, as during Leopold’s time, the shamelessly and continuously performed exploitation of Congolese resources is a substantial reason that the resource-rich East of the country (North and South Kivu) does not come to rest. For years unimaginable atrocities against the civil population are still happening in spite of numerous so-called peace agreements (whose provisions no one enforces in this world!). Atrocities either not acknowledged by the international community or treated with a shrug. This is also the reason for the immense streams of internally displaced persons in this part of Africa. The criminal gangs working for Western interests in raw materials can enrich themselves easier as their targeted terror against the civilian population depopulates entire regions of the country.

“Independence” under a bad omen

In the fifties of the 20th century colonialism became a political burden also for the western world. It was not possible to invoke sustainably the defence of freedom, human rights and democracy on the one hand – especially under the condition of the enduring confrontation with communism, that was at that time still very potent all over the world – and on the other hand withhold those values from a huge mass of people who unfortunately had been born at a distance of some hundred or thousand kilometres from the western power centres, if necessary by use of brute force (as in the Indochina War and the Algerian War). Even in Congo, there were political circles that began to remind Belgium at first moderately but later more severely that human beings with a dark skin had rights as well. Africans at that time had been excluded from higher education in Congo and were not allowed to take charge in the army as officers. Everybody who claimed education for himself was dependent on the Catholic Church and their schools, which were excellent but did not lead to University graduations. In his much-noticed speech in Brazzaville in 1958, just opposite the Congolese capital Kinshasa, President General de Gaulle triggered the development for the independence of the French African colonies. The Christian Democratic professor Jef van Bilsen had already caused a sensation in December 1955 in Belgium and the Congo. Commissioned by the government he elaborated a “Thirty-year plan for the political emancipation of Belgian Africa” (which at that time also included Ruanda and Burundi) which then “came like a real bombshell” (Strizek 1998, p. 77). Though among the so-called “évolués” (Congolese refined persons) who had been educated in the catholic schools criticism emerged rapidly. The dawning nationalistic movement was not willing to be fobbed off with another thirty years dependent on Europe. Amongst them the young ardent patriot, democrat, brilliant speaker and biting critic of the Belgian colonialists, Patrice Eméry Lumumba, – who studied political science in Brussels – increasingly made his presence felt. While the moderate people joined Joseph Kasavubu and his Alliance des Bakongo “Abako” founded in 1950, the MNC (Mouvement national congolais) under Patrice Lumumba spoke a fiercer language and vehemently took a stand for the immediate independence of the Belgian colony. After longer hesitation of the Belgian government, events followed in rapid succession. Finally, it complied with the independence process and greenlighted free and secret provincial elections and general parlamentary elections in 1959. The political main exponents Kasavubu and Lumumba had been released from prison and had been invited due to their high esteem amongst the Congolese population to join the preparatory discussion for independence at the Round Table from 20 to 30 January 1960 in Brussels. All of a sudden, Brussels wanted to proceed fast. According to a confidential information by the responsible colonial minister De Schrijver in autumn 1959, the hidden agenda behind this hurry was “to be asked for help” in the in the inevitable chaos (Strizek 1998, p. 79; Strizek quotes the trustworthy witness Jef van Bilsen). Jef van Bilsen did not draw the development plan for thirty years without a cause. The major nation of central Africa simply did not have any experts before its independence. The Belgian experts had already left the country at that time and local experts did not exist. It was not until 1956 that the first African was able to successfully complete his studies in Belgium. In the year of its independence, the former colony had not more than about ten persons with academic grades outside clergy, amongst them no medic, no engineer and no lawyer.
The parliamentary elections in May 1960 led to a victory of Lumumba’s MNC, followed by Kasavubu’s Abako. After some hesitation, the colonial administration accepted this vote and appointed Patrice Eméry Lumumba to be prime minister. The parliament thereafter elected Joseph Kasavubu as president of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Lumumba built his new government and made a deserved and modest young man his secretary, Mobutu, who later called himself Sese Seko (proud cock) and surrendered Lumumba to his murderers.

One speech too much

30 June 1960, Kinshasa: in the festive decorated national palace towering over the Great River, at the festive independence ceremony of the new African state in presence of everybody of rank and fame – especially the monarchist and colonial nomenclature of Brussels. King Baudouin delivered a patronizing speech in which he stressed the civilizational achievements, Belgium brought to their African wards during the long time of the colony. That was not entirely propaganda, but most of it. Kasavubu’s discourse was similarly and did not cause any offence. Things changed when the usher suddenly also allowed Patrice Eméry Lumumba to speak. Another speech and then even held by such a rebel who was regarded as communist, was not according to protocol. The King bleached, especially while hearing what Lumumba had to say in honour of this occasion. Widely regarded as a tribune of the plebs, he addressed his incandescent – in some parts improvised – speech not to the dignitaries, but to his downtrodden people. Since the national Congolese Radio reported the whole ceremony, he had a respective audience of which many did not forget his courageous words until today (see box). Lumumba called things as they were. He named the actors responsible for all the grief and injustice, done to his people under the Belgian colonisation since the times of King Baudouin’s great uncle, Leopold II. Lumumba welcomed Belgium as a partner with whom the new republic from that day on could deal on equal footing and reciprocal respect, without being in danger to be specially treated. Congo’s independence was not in any way a Belgian gift he called out to the guests and his audience at the radio all over the whole country, it was “only achieved by combat”. Between the lines Lumumba also made clear that there is a certain national self-consciousness in the new established nation by expressing: “You are allowed to participate in our wealth, but only on a level playing field, that we are going to negotiate as equal partners.”
Just barely, they managed to prevent Baudouin from a sudden departure. Although feelings have cooled down until the formal dinner, many observers agreed in one thing: With this speech, which put a stop to Congo’s exploitation, a courageous fighter had signed his own death warrant. Some conservative eyewitness who was prejudiced in the ideas of colonialism or the political structures of power and the numerous officials of the different secret services went home convinced: This Lumumba must be put away. Many of them took this not only politically, but literally and it was carried out promptly.

Self-determination – for five days

The enemies of an independent and economically autonomous Congo did not grant sufficient time to the government of Lumumba to realize its ideals. Already few days after the ceremonies first unrests/upheavals arose. The garrison at the nearby Thysville mutinied when the chief commander of the Force Publique (National Army), who was still in charge after the independence, informed the disappointed soldiers that in future Congolese soldiers would still not be allowed to become officers. The munity leaped over to Kinshasa the next day, where remaining Belgians were attacked. Lumumba, in a hurry, appointed his secretary Mobutu to be the new army’s chief commander, who – in the rank of a major – smoothed down the riot in a short time.
On 11 July, not even two weeks after the independence ceremony, the former comrade in struggle of Lumumba, Moïse Tshombe, who was elected as regional president of the resource rich Katanga, proclaimed the independence of the Katanga region from the Congolese central government. This led to a veritable secession war which lasted until 1963. Soon Belgian troops withdrew as a result of a UN resolution and were replaced by. One month later, on 8 August of the same fatal year 1960, Albert Kalonji, also a former comrade of Lumumba, who because of the latter’s refusal to involve him in his government, had now become his opponent, proclaimed on his behalf the independence of South Kasai which, like Katanga has large mineral resources, including silver, gold and diamonds. The crisis led to great tensions in the government that also damaged the fragile alliance between Kasavubu and Lumumba. On 5 September 1960, President Kasavubu deposed his Prime Minister Lumumba, who without further ado declared the President of State as deposed.

Coward murder

The apparent power vacuum became the hour of Mobutu. The head of the army intervened, forced Kasavubu to remain the political head of state and placed a Council of Commissioners with its own informants over the government as a control organ, which took over the affairs of state until 31 December 1960. Lumumba sought his luck in one of the few remaining loyalists, his former deputy Antoine Gizenga, who in turn tried to install an alternative government in Stanleyville. But Lumumba was betrayed and arrested on his trip to Stanleyville. Mobutu let him hand over to Lumumba’s archenemies in Katanga by his soldiers, knowing very well that his fate would be sealed there. There, near Elizabethville, the freedom fighter was shot dead along with two faithfuls after severe abuse by Katangese soldiers under Belgian command, on 17 January 1961. Today it is proven that the Belgian army and the American Intelligence service had pulled the strings in this coward political assassination. (Ludo de Witte “L’Assassinat de Lumumba” Paris 2000; ISBN 2-84586-006-4).
So, in a few days the “independent” Republic of the Congo had become a huge building on feet of clay, whose corners were set on fire by arsonists on several places. A government consisting of a majority of inexperienced ministers was meant to master several wars of secession concurrently, to rebuild an economically ruined country from the ground and to strengthen the awareness that the state is not a dairy cow to be milked, but a joint venture of all Congolese. All this should be implemented without functioning institutions and in absence of a deployable army. Back then, every observer already knew that this accumulation of problems could not be accidental. It begant to be apparent who would ultimately benefit from this mess. It was Mobutu who persevered pulling the strings until the hour for his rise to power had come.

Ongoing fomented unrest

Two and a half years later, on 14 January 1963, Tshombe had to admit his military defeat and went to Spain in exile. But only one and a half year later, he was recalled to Congo because of Mobutu’s insinuation and placed into a central position: The former secessionist, who had fought against the central government under the applause of revanchist circles for three years, became prime minister of the Congo! Obviously, Mobutu wanted to benefit from his military experience in guerrilla warfare, probably also because of the relationships in the European mercenary market. This was necessary, because further secessions were already looming. Starting in January 1964, an uprising led by Pierre Mulele, a former comrade of Lumumba took place in Kwilu (western Congo) and in May 1964 a revolt of Gaston Soumialot in the east. Also a former companion of Lumumba took part in these hostilities, a certain Laurent Désiré Kabila. Over thirty years later, in 1997, Kabila with his ADLF-alliance and the battlewise Tutsi troops of the former FPR led a Blitz campaign covering the whole Congo and chased Mobutu out of Kinshasa. But we do not want to anticipate, we are just in the middle of the so-called Congo turmoil in the early days of the young republic existing only on paper. Both revolts were defeated by the now powerful Congolese national army, enhanced with European mercenaries, under Mobutu. After these repeated upheavals, the country would have desperately needed some rest. But Kasavubu deposed Tshombe, stepped out of line at the UN, when the Americans stirred up to prevent the joining the People’s Republic of China in the UN and tried to join the Non-Aligned Movement. This was interpreted as a warning sign for America. Mobutu now saw the hour for his long-pursued plan. He conspired with the crucial military leaders and undertook a coup d’etat on 24 November 1965. It was so well prepared and meticulously carried out, so that the 35 year old reached the goal of his efforts, without a single drop of blood. The eulogies that triggered Mobutu’s coup in the West point out that the “savior of the Congo from the threat of communism” acted with Western acceptance, if not even on western suggestion. The 30 year long period of dictatorship was neither criticised nor disturbed by the West.     •
Ludo De Witte, L’Assassinat de Lumumba, Paris 2000; ISBN 2-84586-006-4
Helmut Strizek, Congo/Zaire-Rwanda-Burundi – stability by renewed military rule? Study on the “new order” in Central Africa, Munich/Cologne/London (World Forum Publishing), 1998; ISBN 3-8039-0479-X
Jean-Jacques Arthur Malu Malu, Le Congo Kin-shasa, Paris (Editions Karthala) 2002, ISBN 2-84586-233-4

An indispensable historic monograph regarding Congo

pk. Helmut Strizek, born in 1942, studied political science, history and French.
He has been part of the European Union delegation in Rwanda from 1980-1983 and was in charge of the project processing for the countries of Rwanda and Burundi, working for the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (MECD) between 1987 and 1989. Strizek lived in Rwanda from 1980-1983. He is the author of various books and publications with the focus on the history and the current state of all countries in the region of the Great African Lakes.
In his above stated monograph about the newer history of the Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, he analyses the “new” Africa policies of the Western World, especially those of the US, in those regions since 1997. After the downfall of the Eastern bloc and after Mobutu had been driven from power in Kinshasa, the US reorientated their Africa policy. Now that communism was no longer the main threat, it changed into Islamic fundamentalism. In this new option, the Americans as well as their strategic allies supported regimes which guaranteed them a frontline against modern African Islamism: Laurent Désiré Kabila in Congo, Museveni in Uganda, Kagamé in Rwanda and Buyoya in Burundi. Counting entirely on imperious military regimes, those with little or no democratic legitimation now and then, were willingly accepted. A highly problematic decision in the eyes of the author. In his reliable portrayal, Strizek is looking for answers to the question of what happened to the many one hundred thousand Rwandan Hutu refugees in East Congo, who had been driven out of their refugee camps and later “disappeared” in the jungle during the Kabila War in 1997/98. Back in 1998, Strizek already named those responsible for yet another genocide, a genocide which is still a taboo even today. The book is not only highly reliable in its historical sources, it also has the advantage of not just showing a pure national, but a regional perspective, in which the effective strategy of the Western World for that highly volatile region is displayed in its whole dubiousness.

“...our beloved country’s future is now in the hands of its own people”

Excerpts of Lumumba’s speech at the celebrations on the Independence of Congo, Kinshasa, 30 June 1960:
“Although this independence of the Congo is being proclaimed today by agreement with Belgium, an amicable country, with which we are on equal terms, no Congolese will ever forget that independence was won in struggle, a persevering and inspired struggle carried on from day to day, a struggle, in which we were undaunted by privation or suffering and stinted neither strength nor blood.
It was filled with tears, fire and blood. We are deeply proud of our struggle, because it was just and noble and indispensable in putting an end to the humiliating bondage forced upon us. [...]
We have experienced forced labour in exchange for pay that did not allow us to satisfy our hunger, to clothe ourselves, to have decent lodgings or to bring up our children as dearly loved ones. [...]
We have seen our lands seized in the name of ostensibly just laws, which gave recognition only to the right of might. [...]
All that, my brothers, brought us untold suffering.
But we, who were elected by the votes of your representatives, representatives of the people, to guide our native land, we, who have suffered in body and soul from the colonial oppression, we tell you that henceforth all that is finished with.
The Republic of the Congo has been proclaimed and our beloved country’s future is now in the hands of its own people.”

Source: Patrice Lumumba, The Truth about a Monstrous Crime of the Colonialists, Moscow, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961, pp. 44-47


The term refers to a political regime which thrives on robbing its own nation systematically. Mobutu‘s dictatorship of more than 30 years is a prime example of this form of dictatorship. The mineral resources of the country were hawked at giveaway prices to other countries which in turn guaranteed the dictator’s rule. The funds made available in this way were distributed to the private (foreign) accounts of the dictator’s family and his camarilla and thus withdrawn from the regular money cycle. This money was lacking when it came to investments in the public interest and those who had generated it in the first place by their hard work were systematically deprived of it.

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